As the daughter of IndyCar team owner and driver John Della Penna, Michelle Della Penna grew up around the track, watching races, traveling with her dad on the circuit, and observing him working on cars.
Learning to drive at age 11, Della Penna developed a love for motorsports at a young age.
Through her new nonprofit, the Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation, she hopes to get young girls interested and involved in motorsports as youngsters.
Della Penna is promoting her organization by appearing at the Los Angeles Auto Show through Sunday, Nov. 28, at the LA Convention Center. On Nov. 18, she hosted “Women Driving Change in Motorsports: VIP Brunch and Panel” as part of the event.
“My father passed away two years ago,” she said.
“I’d been thinking about a way to honor his legacy and manage my grief a little bit. This whole foundation is basically a love letter to my dad.
“I’ve been very blessed in my life. I’ve done a lot of things I’ve wanted to do, and I’ve had that opportunity because people believed in me. My father believed I could do anything. If I can give back in any way and be someone who believes in someone else, that would be great.”
She founded the Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation in March after a day at the go-kart track with her son.
“We were out on the grid and, out of a pack of 20 kids, there were only two girls,” Della Penna said. “I got this question as to why there aren’t more girls out on the grid in 2021. Why there aren’t more girls in racing in general and how to support that.”
Her original plan was to create a scholarship program for girls who want to get into go-karting. Scholarships, internships and mentorships are available.
“Racing is a pretty exclusive sport,” she said. “If you don’t know someone who is in it, you’re probably not going to be involved. It can be quite expensive, and the barrier to entry is pretty high. So, I thought, what if we created a scholarship so that young girls can start racing at 5, 6, 7, get exposed to go-karting, really develop their talent and skills and maybe be able to move into a career?”
The organization seeks to empower and educate girls from ages 5 to 16, providing them with the skills and knowledge they need to become drivers, engineers, developers, mechanics and pit-crew members.
“He raised a fiercely independent feminist,” said Della Penna, a teacher, entrepreneur, and mother of three sons. “I was constantly bothering him as to why there weren’t more women. But he did have women engineers. He had a lot of women that worked for the team and always believed there was no reason that women shouldn’t be more at the forefront of the sport.”
Della Penna plans to involve prominent women from the racing world, including Paretta Autosport CEO/Team Principal Beth Paretta; pioneer IndyCar driver Lyn St. James; and Cara Adams, director of race tire engineering and production for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations and Firestone Racing.
Penna said they can help young girls see the possibilities of working in the motorsports industry.
“There are a lot of people at the top who want women in motorsports, especially women of color,” she said.
“The problem is that there aren’t a lot of organizations that are willing to foster and nurture at ages 5, 6 and 7, where kids typically get involved in motorsports. So, I think because we are willing to do that heavy lifting, we’ve gotten a lot of support from people.
“Also, women want to help women. They’ve been there. Lyn St. James was the only female driver back in the ’90s in IndyCar. It was not an easy road for her. She paved her own path. I think the tides are turning, and I think people want to see more women in motorsports.”
In September, the organization hosted its first day-at-the-track event at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which included a chance to meet drivers and female engineers and to see vintage race car and memorabilia. Other events are in the planning stages.
“We gave them an entire immersive experience into what it could look like at the track, what it could look like as a career,” Della Penna said.
The Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation